Change for Change’s Sake

The internet is full of idiots. Websites to do with gaming, doubly so. Normally I find myself ignoring the majority of commenters for their sheer stupidity, and even the topics which truly tend to rile me up have, in recent months, trended towards being less successful in doing so. (Evidently, being a member of the first generation to grow up with the internet has led to my growing weary of certain topics far sooner than ever thought possible.) But with the recent release of the (utterly shit) Hitman: Absolution, I find myself challenged by an old nemesis.

Trawling the internet for reviews of 47’s latest adventure to laugh at (if positive) or bathe in a puddle of mournfulness with (if negative), I came across Polygon’s review. The review itself was, of course, wrong but, as I’ve said, such a positive response to such a rubbish game didn’t quite enrage me in the way it used to. Instead, my irritation arose with this comment:

The suggestion seems to be that asking for an adherence to a series’ actual set-up and gameplay is counter to asking for innovation and evolution. The suggestion is also horse shit, because these are not two ideas that counter one another in the slightest, nor do they make the person asking for them a hypocrite.

Hitman: Blood Money is widely regarded as the best game of the series, and yet it was in many ways very different to its predecessors. Almost all of the game’s effort was now spent on imagining mini-sandboxes in which to experiment, whilst any sense of linearity had been almost entirely vanquished. No more trekking through blizzards in Japan, no more instant-insertions into dangerous territories. Mission areas became mostly inhabited by civilians, and players were, more than ever, encouraged to poke about their environment, to think and plan before striking. Blood Money was at once relaxed and yet puzzling. It was, fundamentally, the same as its forebears: introducing change in order to fully realise the concept that the series had begun with, yet evolved away from the crap that had kept it down.

Hitman: Absolution, however, is a game that does not do that. It is linear, heavily story-driven (don’t worry, the story’s also shit), and very rarely even features a target that you have to kill; let alone a fully-realised, open area in which to do so methodically. In fact, there’s only one mission in the whole game that anywhere near approaches what the four previous games have done their best to achieve. Sure, it’s changed, but only in that it has regressed: and change for the hell of changing is not worthy of automatic praise or an XX% score boost; but then neither would a carbon copy of the previous entry be particularly laudable either.

The fact of the matter is that we should always encourage evolution as much as we should encourage a sense of pride in a series’ uniqueness, mission-statement (a fairly horrible phrase for a creative effort, but the best I can think of right now), and spirit. Neither is a contradiction of the other, but what progress is built on: it’s what gave us Blood Money, and it’s what was ignored to make Absolution such a crushing disappointment.

Double-Oh! Dead

Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall spoilers follow.

All good things come to an end, so sayeth the optimists of the world. It’s a sentiment that needn’t be as dire as it might first seem: sometimes the end of a good thing can lead to even better things. Other times, it simply stops the good from rotting.

Since the beginning of Daniel Craig’s tenure, the Bond franchise has been almost entirely the very best of things: it’s seen its best writing to date, best lead actor and Bond to date, two of its best films to date (no, not Quantum of Solace), and now with Skyfall, the best cast-list to date. What’s more, it’s even had a true continuity of plot between Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and an emotional continuity across all three: Bond is not the same man at the beginning of Skyfall that he was at the beginning of Casino Royale, nor QoS. 

Each outing have been marked by the recurring motifs of death, more death, and human weakness leading to death; and with Skyfall’s focus on the old giving way to the new, these past three adventures have formed themselves into a pseudo-trilogy of sorts. Virtually anyone in the least bit close to Bond has met their end: Vesper in Casino, Mathis in QoS, and now M in Skyfall. (Not to mention that pretty much anyone he manages to get his penis inside kicks the bucket as well.) But as we see at M’s death, the man himself is no longer shouldering all of this wanton destruction quite as well as he used to. He is getting older, and he is getting weaker.

And so, James Bond must die.

Because how much more is there left to explore? We’ve seen him become an agent and lose the woman he loved, witnessed the loss of his friends, learnt about his tragic childhood and now seen the death of what-may-as-well-be his Mother too. A character can only see so much death before they’re less lucky and more just lower down on their writer’s waiting list.

No longer are we watching The Adventures of James Bond. We did that for 40 years, and it only led us to Die Another Day and a franchise in desperate need of a fresh start. With that fresh start came a new Bond and a new focus: now we’re bearing witness to The Life and Times of James Bond. And every life – like all good things – must come to an end.

Far Cry 2: Welcome to the Suck

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Far Cry 2 makes my head hurt. When playing it, I tend to loathe its very existence: the guard checkpoints, the long travel times, the indistinct, rage-enducingly quiet characters. Everyone knows the complaints by now; I suspect most people could probably list them straight off the top of their head. But it’s when I’m not playing Far Cry 2 that I think my opinion of it rings most true: and that is that it’s an unadulterated work of near-genius.

Those respawning guard posts are where the trouble always begins. Popular opinion dictates that they’re a problem that needs fixing – indeed, the Far Cry 3 team claims they’ve done just that. Popular opinion is certainly correct in suggesting that such a move would be vital in alleviating the sense of repetition and ineffectuality which quickly bites at your heels. And after that, popular opinion proclaims the need for greater mission variety to combat Far Cry 2’s lopsided, craze-inducing spiral of shooting and driving. Alone, these are simple design flaws: fault-lines that any other game would need to fill with cement. And yet these issues of Far Cry 2’s exist amidst a myriad of idiosyncrasies ranging from the irritating to the infuriating, idiosyncrasies which form a disturbingly endearing experience.

Less prevalent an example is the form that character interaction takes in Far Cry 2. If you’re not setting them alight and popping caps in their arses, you’re listening to them drone out orders and philosophies at 300 words-per-minute. After 40 or so hours, you feel no closer to the people you’ve worked for than you did at the game’s beginning; if anything, you’re driven further away from them as their mumbling vernacular draws a line of dissonance between yourself and them.

And let’s not forget the factions themselves. The UFLL and APR? Indistinguishable. In all the times I’ve revisited Far Cry 2’s Africa, I’ve never once caught on to what either of them fights for. They’re faceless, practically nameless, and order you about seemingly without rhyme or reason; you work for both and you’ll be attacked by both, indiscriminately. Each exists in a limbo of sorts, reflected in the game’s nameless, war-torn African nation: an amalgamation of so many countries at the arse-end of nowhere that all of their specific characteristics are dead and buried.

The willingness with which your employers’ factions attacks you, and the immediacy with which guard posts refill and reload, serves to highlight one very clear truth: alive, you are useless. You’re a part of the system. Sent in to kill an arms-dealer, The Jackal, fueling a war, you instead slaughter hundreds of men for both sides – all whilst using The Jackal’s weapons to do so no less. And whilst the lose-lose ending seemed to anger a number of players when Far Cry 2 was released, in truth it was the only way it could have ended. From the moment the game begins, you exist in this world: your former employers barely given a mention, your character’s former life boiled down to an A5-sized fact-sheet. The country and your objective do not change for as long as you try to survive. The only way to  break the cycle is to die.

Until the very end, however, Far Cry 2 won’t let you go so easily, with the ‘buddy system’ often dragging you magically back into the land of the living. And when it is time for the end, your buddies, just like everyone else, will try to kill you; the only way you can guarantee you break from the perpetual carousel of death is to murder those who have become a part of it, and that includes the guy who’s been saving your arse for the past 20 hours, just as much as it ultimately includes you. This is a message that exists in every facet of Far Cry 2: that, from the person who just saved you to the weapon you just picked up, nothing can be trusted. Everything feeds back into the cycle of destruction.

Far Cry 2 is at its best when it’s at its worst: cyclical, repetitive, monotonous. Extended play-throughs are likely to drive you insane, because extended play-throughs are designed to drive you insane. It’s the perfect simulation of a fruitless, warring existence, and is subsequently a miserable farce to play through. Coverage of Far Cry 3’s development has seen the developers talk a lot about charting one man’s descent into insanity. It seems to me that Far Cry 2 is insanity.

Dishonoured: Karma Get Some Morality

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Originally I had intended for this piece – or a version of this piece – to be the next in my regular column, The Scripted Sequence, in Haywire, but it seems it’ll overlap with a longer, more thorough discussion-type feature that Joe (of Deadpan Lunacyhopes to get going. Still, waste not want not. I’ve adapted it a little to be less magazine-y, but it’s most definitely the original piece in mind, spirit and body(ish). 

And on the plus side, I get to spell Dishonoured properly. Every cloud. 

Mark Twain once said a person should, ‘Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.’ Well I’m sorry Twainster, but your mumbo-jumbo doesn’t cut it anymore. With The Witcher 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both asking us in recent times to make up our own damn minds about what is right, it seems that even game developers no longer dare impart their own morals onto the choices they give us. Even Mass Effect 3, still using the Red ‘n’ Blue dichotomy of Knights of the Old Republic, makes a decent crack of the whip at being impartial towards our decisions. But now Dishonoured’s come along, reared its beautiful – but really quite bloody ugly – skull-faced head and, some have argued, stuck a shiv in the moral-relativism of those other games with a system it calls ‘Chaos’.

Quite.

Chaos in Dishonoured is simple. Cut your way through the streets of Dunwall like the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and kill all manner of folks, both nasty and nice alike, and you’ll come to realise that you’ve probably done more harm than good: Samuel the boatman certainly won’t be afraid to tell you as much. But choose to cuddle your opponents to sleep and you might just find yourself looking on the brighter side of life: Little Miss Empress will be crowned at the beginning of a new Golden Age for Dunwall, and not atop a pile of corpses that you’ve lovingly carved up for her to sit on. Samuel’s final departure will see him impart feelings of pride and loyalty, not disgust and trepidation.

Although Chaos was sold as a system of subtleties reliant on your physical actions throughout the entire game, in practice you come to realise that for all the things that do and don’t count against you as kills for whatever reason, the system is still just counting kills. And once you kill one chump too many, your gameplay stats are sent to Broadmoor and the end-of-mission slaughter count brands your Chaos rating ‘High’. Binary’s great for getting computers to do their bizzle and for saying naughty words in code (01100011 01101111 01100011 01101011), but that’s about it. In the wake of the monster-slayers and transhumanists, one can’t help but feel that Dishonoured’s apparent commentary on players’ choices is a little antiquated; a regression on new-found (or newly regained) principles of choice-systems in gaming.

I foresee a Dishonourable discharge in the near future.

To counter this, Deus Ex the First employed an extremely clever tactic of having a number of characters with ranging personalities react differently to your field-methods and general behaviour. By doing so, the game let players feel as if they were genuinely impacting upon the characters around them and averted the issue of making them feel as if they were being demonised by the developers for certain behaviours – a potentially problematic trait for any game that sells itself on letting you play how you want. Dishonoured does try this, but only once. And with only one character. A character whose moral alignment is “just a nice guy”. Yes, dearest Samuel: you’re a part of the problem. Because if you only have one character commenting on the player’s actions and it’s only once in the game and that character possesses the moral alignment of pretty much any regular, non-psychopathic person, then you may as well have the developers themselves send you a letter of elation/disappointment (delete as appropriate) in response to your actions.

So far then, so unsuccessful.

But whilst there are definite failures to be noted in light of Dishonoured’s cyperbunk ancestor, there are also legitimate, deviating paths to be mapped. Like, oh I dunno, the very essence of the Chaos system itself! Aha! If you were inclined to kill Anna Navarre after rebelling against her orders in Deus Ex then Gunther, Anna’s old partner, would have a personal vendetta in tow as he hunted you down. A pragmatic consequence to a physical choice. The narrative of Deus Ex is not unlike a tapestry, ready for you to pick your own needle and thread and embroider into it your own tastes and opinions. Sure, some bits are filled in already, you can’t choose the material and the tapestry isn’t endless, but when you’re finished you’ll find each of your own threads has a traceable lineage, and with a personalised touch.

Dishonoured, on the other hand, is like a Picasso. There is reason and meaning (or so my Art-student friends tell me), but its relevance to what you see in front of you can be strained and even tenuous. The link between action and consequence is karmic. And whilst the philosophy is quite obviously a load of horse shit in real life, it’s not an uninteresting concept to embed within an interactive narrative. There’s little practical logic in having Corvo’s bloodlust lead to a more plague-ridden Dunwall, but there is a theoretical and defined logic in his negative behaviour impacting upon the city around him in an equally negative way: a kind of pathetic fallacy.

Dishonoured’s Chaos certainly isn’t perfect, and I’ll rally alongside its detractors and many of their criticisms. But it is important to remember that there are two sides to the system: one which failed by being too limited in scope, and one which might prove a valid alternative to the approaches to choice and morality we have now, also hindered by that limited scope. And although it seems unlikely that a karmic system could ever live up to the satisfaction of seeing the practical repercussions to your actions, or entirely avoid the pratfalls of attaching a developer’s morality to a player’s decisions, I don’t know if it’s something we should discourage just yet.

Let the Skyfall (On the Audience)

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Like virtually every other person on the planet who has ever written anything positive about film, I have a fondness for the cinema stretching back to my childhood (legally six months ago, if you’re looking to emasculate me). Going to the pictures has always felt like experiencing some sort of Midas Touch first-hand (ho ho ho): magical, but really a little bit dodgy when you’re on the outside looking in. The entire process is an intoxicating one: buying the tickets, paying over-the-odds for three grams of Pick ‘n’ Mix, striding through the heavy double-doors into the darkened screening. Even watching the three hours of adverts set to roll before the film proper becomes a ritualistic pleasure.

People of a certain age and over have a tendency to complain about one particular aspect of the cinema-going experience above all else, however: the audience. In my home city of [REDACTED] this was never a problem for me. The audience would laugh at the funny bits, cower at the scary bits and shut the fuck up during all the other bits. The trappings of a fine audience, indeed. Having moved to London for University six weeks ago, last Tuesday saw my first cinema-going experience in the capital (beyond The Phantom Menace with my grandparents when I was five – yes, I still kinda like it), and it might just have changed all of that with Skyfall.

The film itself is excellent, bar a few minor quibbles. The biggest, though, was one of humour. I thought it had tried to be too funny. Humour is certainly a facet of the franchise, but just as each incarnation must see different shades of the character and different suit cuts, so must the humour tailor itself to the era and actor. Craig’s Bond is in equal parts faintly disdainful and reproachful; his charm a tool to aid him in his job, and rarely anything more. His humour, as well as the film’s, should be dry, ironic and fleeting. Black comedy, almost. As we meandered away from the cinema, I was adamant the film had set up a few jokes too many that were neither funny nor appropriate for the place in the film in which they appeared – nor, in some cases, for the film they were in.

But then I began to think about the parts I hadn’t found funny, the jokes I thought had fallen flat. Some certainly had. (I’m pretty sure an “exploding pen” quip made me audibly groan.) Others, however, I’m not sure were meant to be jokes at all. And then it struck me, what had really been bothering me: a certain sect of the audience had kept on laughing at those actual, definitively non-jokes.

Take, for instance, the scene from which the header image is stolen. It’s in the trailer, so you’ll find no particular spoilers here. Bond, returning to work after a partially-involuntary hiatus, practices at a shooting range. His first shot hits towards the edge of the cut-out; not the edge of the drawn on body, but the cut-out itself. Even as a person who’s never held a gun before, I’m pretty sure that’s a little bit shit. Especially for a trained government hitman. This garnered quite a few chuckles – a little odd, but not overtly bewildering. What was bewildering was the reaction to the next shot: a close up of Bond’s face, eyes reddened from exhaustion and drink, glazed just enough to imply tears. And with this shot, roughly a third of the audience laughed, and continued to laugh as he shot wildly at the target, marching forwards and missing every single one of them.

This man’s job is his life: a fact the film communicates superbly in the events preceding this particular scene. He has nothing else in the world, and Bond without it is a drink-abusing husk of a meat slab. In Casino Royale he tells us he’d like to escape with, “what little soul [he has] left”Skyfall’s message is pretty clear: he probably doesn’t have even that anymore. And so what we’re seeing as one-third of the audience chuckles away to themselves is the visual equivalent of a man wanting children being told he’s impotent. Bond can’t perform, and he’s on the verge of losing the only thing he has left to hold on to that can let him lay claim to any semblance of a life.

The question that worries me is this: now that I’ve gone beyond the veil, can I step back out? Or have I been permanently, prematurely exposed to the flaws of an audience experience? I can recognise, at least in part, how the audience’s reaction coloured my opinion of Skyfall specifically, but I wonder further if it’s happened before. How often? How badly?

I suspect and hope that Skyfall was a one off – in fact I am almost certain of it, if only through wishful thinking. But I also suspect that the Midas Touch will be gleaming a little less brightly from now on. And for that I am a little sad.

Hello You

No sooner had I created my About page than did I realise that I should also probably write an introductory first post. I supposed I could probably copy/paste it, although that my look lazy and I’d hate to set that precedent so early with absolutely everything I do. But then I supposed I’d otherwise have to write a completely different intro possibly covering the exact same things – and that just looks silly.

Already it seemed that this blogging business has become fraught with trepidation.

But then the answer became clear. “Link to the About page,” I said to myself, “and then spend the rest of the post giving an insight into the inane trials and tribulations that confront your mind in every waking moment.” And so this is where we find ourselves: I’ve been broken already.

My name’s Ethan, by the way. You’d know that if you’d read the About page. I linked it, you know.